Boston Microgreens is a futuristic farm. Its 2,000-square-foot space in South Boston is a maze of five-level racks covered in trays of minuscule rainbow plants, which are grown, watered, and harvested on an automated schedule.
Don’t be fooled by the high-tech set-up, though; the urban farm has humble roots.
The company began in the living room of cofounder Oliver Homberg’s apartment in 2017. Homberg, a Northeastern University graduate who majored in international affairs with a focus on sustainable development, nurtured a longtime affection for plants, and he and his roommate, cofounder Matt Alto (who has since left the company) saw the burgeoning potential of microgreens.
“We saw a YouTube video that was literally like, ‘Grow microgreens in your apartment, make $100,000 in a year,’” said Homberg, 26, in an interview. “We were like, OK, maybe we won’t make $100,000, but this seems like something interesting.”
Microgreens are baby vegetable and herb plants harvested above the soil just after the first tiny seed leaves sprout, about 10 to 25 days after seeding. They have an outsize kick of nutrition compared with their fully-grown counterparts, and are heralded by chefs for adding a pretty and flavorful boost to many dishes. Some of the most popular products from Boston Microgreens — which joins other Massachusetts microgreens farms like We Grow Microgreens in Hyde Park and 2 Friends Farm in Attleboro — are Japanese purple shiso, sunflower, and popcorn shoots, Homberg said.
It wasn’t until February 2019 that Boston Microgreens moved out of Homberg’s home and into the space on West Broadway. Before moving, the company cultivated relationships with about a dozen restaurants, limiting them to those in Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge to ensure freshness.
Now, that number has grown to about 70, with some of its grow-to-order greens found on plates at O Ya, Lincoln Tavern and Restaurant, City Table, and Fat Baby, to name a few.
“These guys walked in and dropped the product, explained a little bit, left their business card. I tried it and then the next day I called to set up the account,” said Sean MacAlpine, executive chef at City Table in the Lenox Hotel in Back Bay. “Whenever [we’re] sending out a filet mignon or a surf-and-turf, it always gets a little love from them.”
Some of these restaurants, including City Table, receive live trays, meaning the chefs snip the greens just moments before a dish is served.
“You’re basically taking the farm into the kitchen,” Homberg said.
During the pandemic, staring down a complete loss of restaurant orders, Boston Microgreens launched a subscription service. That means it will deliver clamshell boxes — $45 a month for a weekly small box and $80 a month for a large — packed with a mix of seven microgreens to about 40 customers in the Boston area, Homberg said. It also set up shop at the Copley Square Farmers Market, where customers can purchase microgreens every Tuesday.
“You’ve got a connection with your food,” Homberg said. “That’s where the beauty in it is, because it’s very simple, and it’s very powerful, and it really brings us back to some of our fundamentals.”
Booming business, Homberg said, can be attributed to the state-of-the-art technology, namely an app, that Boston Microgreens uses to manage the farm. The Microgreens Grow App was initially developed by Boston Microgreens with the help of volunteers and co-ops from Northeastern, but will soon be relaunched as software to be used by other farms, Homberg said. There are plans to put the app in beta testing by the end of the year.
“It’s a glorified calculator,” Homberg said. “The chefs can go in, they can select what product they want, what day they want it, what format, and they can type it in on a calendar, and then they schedule the order, and for us in the backend it just spits out everything we need to do.”
The app determines everything from how many trays to plant, when to plant and harvest each, and a delivery schedule and route. It also averages the yield of each variety to adjust how much of each green should be planted. This data helps the team determine possible price shifts, problems with varieties, and why certain plants may be dying.
By manipulating the germination conditions, grow days, light spectrum, and nutrient regimen for different varieties, Homberg said, even the plants themselves can be grown to individual customizations using the app.
“If [a] chef wants that Thai basil leaf, an inch and a half every Tuesday and Friday, that’s something I can guarantee for them,” Homberg said. “We want to be your personal urban farm. Tell us what you want and we’ll see if we can make it happen.”
In terms of hardware, the farm uses automated timers and watering systems for each microgreen variety. The farm uses 95 percent less water than traditional farms, Homberg said, because of the “ebb and flow” system, where water is pumped from a reservoir to a flood table on each level, which feeds water directly to the plants through holes in the bottom of the plant trays. The water is then emptied back into the reservoir to be recirculated.
“Basically you have a farm on top of a farm on top of the farm,” Homberg explained.
Other green practices include LED lighting, renewable electricity, and compostable packaging, and all soil is donated to community gardens. “Our intention is certainly to be as zero impact as we can,” Homberg said, “if not net positive.”
A nonprofit school initiative, the Boston Youth Farming Program, is also in the works, beginning with a pilot program at Tynan Elementary School in South Boston. The program will educate students about the environment by guiding them through a hands-on growing season. “We really want to give kids some exposure — especially kids in the city — to natural systems,” Homberg said.
Boston Microgreens, however, isn’t done growing. Homberg said the company is now focusing on creating “a network of decentralized urban farms” in Massachusetts that can use Boston Microgreens’ standard operating procedure, starting with a six-year deal at The Beverly Farms. This farm will supply product to Boston Microgreens, as well as provide the plants to Beverly customers, Homberg said.
“Instead of having a massive farm in one state that supplies the whole state, I want to see 20 microgreen farms, each supplying their own ZIP codes,” Homberg said. “Every town in the world is going to have a microgreen farm by the time that the technology seeps into the world, and ... we want to empower local, empower sustainable.”